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A tougher Duke team is a better Duke team, and tonight proved it


COLLEGE PARK, MD - Calling Duke’s 80-62 win over Maryland on Wednesday night a statement win would be an exaggeration.

The Blue Devils took control of the game midway through the first half with a 23-7 run, but the final 18 point margin doesn’t give the Terps enough credit for how hard they fought. Duke controlled this game, but they didn’t dominate. Duke is one of the country’s premier teams, and whether the game is at home or in a tough environment on the road, they are supposed to perform like this against programs in the middle of a mediocre ACC.

Duke did, however, show a heck of a lot more toughness and grit than they did against St. John’s.

After Duke’s embarrassing 15 point loss to the Johnnies on Sunday, Mike Krzyzewski essentially said that his team did not show up ready to play.

“It’s not an Xs and Os thing today,” Coach K said on Sunday. “I felt we were not ready to compete, we had blank expressions on our faces and guys weren’t talking and that’s my responsibility. Our program didn’t do well today and that is all our responsibilities.”

He reiterated that point tonight.

“The Sunday game, not to take anything away from St. John’s, sometimes no matter what you do,” Krzyzewski told reporters, “you just don’t do. You’re just a little bit flat. We were a lot flat [on Sunday], [St. John’s] wasn’t.”

“To come on the road three days later is really a huge thing for our kids. I’m proud of our guys.”

Part of the reason that Duke was able to play like this on the road was a change in the line up. Freshman Tyler Thornton got the start over Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, and Miles Plumlee started the second half over Ryan Kelly. It was, Coach K said, an attempt to bring a swagger to his team that he thought they were missing on Sunday.

“Tyler’s been so tough,” Coach K said. “In our first Maryland game, he was the guy, I thought he was the difference maker in that game.”

The issue for Duke when they lose hasn’t necessarily been their talent level. It never is when you can put two senior all-americans on the floor at the same time. The issue has been toughness, both mental and physical. The Blue Devils shot terribly early on against both Florida State and St. John’s. They also were dominated on the inside. The Plumlee brothers, for all the talent and potential that they have, are not exactly known for their strength on the block. That becomes a real concern when you are playing a team with an all-american caliber center like Jordan Williams, especially when that all-american had 23 points and 13 boards in a previous matchup.

The play of the Plumlees has been the knock on Duke all season long. But tonight, the Plumlees, specifically younger brother Mason, played as well as they have in their time in Durham.

“We felt that in order for [Mason] to play Jordan evenly, he needed to know that we had confidence in him,” Coach K said. “So the very first play of the game we went right to him and he ended up scoring. I really think that this was Mason’s best game at Duke.”

The numbers back it up. Mason finished with 12 points and 11 boards (four offensive), including a dunk on the baseline in the second half that put a stop to a Maryland run that had gotten the lead down to five.

“When [the Plumlees] play like that, its huge for us,” Nolan Smith said after the game. “They were rebounding, blocking shots, doing everything we needed from them. A lot of teams try to go inside and exploit them, and they’re really good players.”

“When they play like they did tonight, we’re going to be a very tough team to beat.”

The Plumlees weren’t the only role players to step up tonight. Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry combined to shoot 5-9 from three, including a number of clutch jumpers late in the game. Dawkins, in particular, hit the two biggest shots of the game. On back-to-back possessions after Mason’s run-stopping dunk, Dawkins buried a three. With the lead pushed back to 12 points and less six minutes left on the clock, the game was all but over.

That’s what Duke needs. They can’t rely on the talents of Kyle Singler and Smith alone. Sure, Singler carried the team for a stretch in the second half, scoring 11 straight points on a series of jumpers in the half court. And yes, Smith was once again the closer, making play after play at the end of the shot clock as Duke milked the clock down the stretch.

But without their role players performing, Duke is the team that got run out of Madison Square Garden.

“What would be really good is if all of them had the ego as if they should be a starter,” Krzyzewski said, “and have the attitude that wherever you want me, coming off the bench or starting, would be alright. They took a big step towards that tonight. Tyler started tonight. Andre and Seth have started. Now we have five guys on the perimeter who have started games since Kyrie went out. We started Miles in the second half, and he hasn’t started a half in a while. A lot of this is trying to build up the egos of these kids. They’re young guys.”

“I thought we grew up a lot today. We got tougher today.”

That toughness is what was lacking against St. John’s and Florida State.

And its what could make the difference for this Duke team in March.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.